Trump lauds reemergence of Kim, who appears in good health
Two Koreas exchange gunfire at DMZ, no injuries reported
U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday said he was glad to see North Korean leader Kim Jong-un alive and well, after the dictator emerged publicly on Friday following weeks of speculation about his health.
Footage released by Korean Central Television (KCTV), Pyongyang’s main state broadcaster, on Saturday showed a smiling and active Kim attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a fertilizer factory, a far cry from the rumors that he was severely ill ? or even brain dead ? which had been circulating for weeks.
Accompanied by key economic officials and his younger sister and aide, Kim Yo-jong, the portly dictator showed no apparent signs of physical weakness, and was even featured smoking cigarettes in some of the photographs released by KCTV.
According to an English-language report by the Korean Central News Agency, another regime mouthpiece, the public at the event “burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!’ for the Supreme Leader who is commanding the all-people general march for accomplishing the great cause of prosperity.”
Trump appeared to share that sentiment, commenting on Twitter that "I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!"
Saturday’s broadcast by KCTV was the first time in 20 days that Kim appeared publicly since he was last seen attending a party meeting on April 11.
A litany of international media reports since ? sparked by Kim’s failure to attend a ritual ceremony marking the birthday of his grandfather and the regime’s founder Kim Il Sung on April 15 ? speculated that the dictator was ill and potentially incapacitated from ruling his country.
One South Korean online periodical called Daily NK claimed that he underwent cardiovascular surgery, unleashing a storm kindled further by a CNN report that said the dictator could be “gravely ill.”
While this was certainly not the first time rumors circulated on the health of North Korea’s leaders, in Seoul, the media frenzy was stirred further by a pair of defectors recently elected as lawmakers, Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, who stressed a great deal of certainty about Kim’s illness.
A day before Kim reappeared on state media last week, Ji claimed he was “99 percent certain” that Kim Jong-un had died due to complications from heart surgery, citing a source within North Korea. Thae, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain, said that it was “clear” that Kim was in a state where he could not walk nor lift himself.
By contrast, the South Korean government repeatedly dismissed any notions of Kim’s supposed illness, saying its intelligence showed no signs out of the ordinary from the North. Seoul’s Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-chul, even called the media outburst on Kim an “infodemic” backed up by little or no substance.
A high ranking official at Seoul’s Blue House on Sunday said that there were no signs Kim had received surgery of any kind, denying new speculations by local media suggesting Kim’s gait at the ribbon-cutting ceremony indicated health problems.
After Saturday’s state media report from the North contradicted their claims, Thae and Ji found themselves the butt of intense public backlash for their earlier claims.
South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party Sunday called for an apology from the pair, noting their unsubstantiated remarks had raised unnecessary alarm among the South Korean public.
Neither figure, however, backed away from their earlier remarks. Thae on Sunday continued to raise suspicions that Kim may have suffered health issues over the past three weeks, while Ji prevaricated by stressing it was too early to tell whether the rumors were untrue.
While the hubbub over Kim’s illness may be wrapped up as yet another case of misreporting, the incident underscores the regime's lack of transparency and latent volatility stemming from its reliance on its supreme leader for important decision-making.
The world experienced the same sort of uncertainty and alarm in 2014, when Kim disappeared from the public eye for around 40 days due to a surgery he received on his foot.
With denuclearization negotiations with the United States hanging in the balance, Kim’s health may be another factor in Washington’s calculus for future engagement with the regime.
For months now, Pyongyang has been taking a hardline approach on the nuclear issue, refusing to return to talks unless the United States rescinds economic sanctions on the North. March saw four successive launches of what were apparently ballistic missiles by North Korea, followed by a cruise missile test on April 14.
Such apparent provocations, as well as Kim Jong-un’s disappearance and reemergence, were characterized by analysts as attempts to refocus international scrutiny on the country amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
His decision to resume his public activities at a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, suggests intent to focus his energy on economic growth and maintaining sufficient food supplies ahead of the harvest in autumn. North Korea faces persistent food shortages and may experience another major famine if the harvest season this year proves unproductive.
But the dictator’s public activities were not the only North Korean actions that gained Seoul’s attention this weekend.
On Sunday, South Korea’s military said there was an exchange of gunfire at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with the North that morning after several shots from the North hit a South Korean guard post.
Four bullet marks were found on the wall of the guard post near Cheorwon, Gangwon, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, adding that its troops responded with 20 warning shots fired toward the North.
No one was injured nor were any facilities damaged, but the North’s gunfire represented a violation of a military agreement signed between the two Koreas in September 2018, a JCS officer said.
The agreement bans all acts of hostility on the inter-Korean border as part of an effort by the two countries to defuse long-standing tensions.
Seoul’s military said it was analyzing the reasons behind the North’s gunfire, but some military officials believe it could have simply been an accident on the part of North Korean troops.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]